Embracing Passion for Gymnastics, McDonald Ready to Grow Into Spotlight Leading UCLA

There’s an extra burden the head coach of UCLA gymnastics carries that no other coach in the sport does: They’re the leader of the team that’s the current face of the sport.

Even with a two-year absence from competing on the national stage, the Bruins continue to dominate in presence after becoming synonymous with the word viral. Their over-half-a-million combined Twitter and Instagram followers is more than a hundred thousand greater than that of any of this season’s final four teams, UCLA’s football, basketball and baseball teams, and other dynasty collegiate programs like Penn State volleyball and UConn women’s basketball. Plus, UCLA has the victories to back up its social media resume, ranking third all time in championships with seven NCAA titles.

So when new UCLA gymnastics head coach Janelle McDonald needed some advice on how to handle the notoriety that comes with running a blueblood program, she knew exactly which friend to call.

“She was trying to understand how we deal with it, how we dealt with it with Simone [Biles] and if it’s scary. I said as long as you stay true to yourself and keep doing what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what the internet has to say,” recalled Cecile Landi about a phone call with McDonald shortly after she was hired as the next UCLA head coach. Landi is the girls team assistant head coach at World Champions Centre and, most notably, a coach of Olympic champion Simone Biles.

“Your team is your priority, not what goes on on social media.”

Landi became a mentor to the fresh face of the Bruins during McDonald’s extensive club coaching career that saw her touch every level of gymnastics in several of the most touted gyms in the country. Building off only a high school-level gymnastics career of her own, McDonald set her sights early on making an impact on the sport in other ways.

“My friend and I were just joking this weekend about [coming] a long way since earning butterfly patches,” laughed McDonald. “I wasn’t the highest level gymnast, but I always strived to make an impact where I could—to always learn and grow into the areas I didn’t maybe compete myself but could teach.”

Growing up in Federal Way, Washington, McDonald fell in love with coaching during her high school days while leading preschool rec classes at her local club. She developed a knack for coaching there too and was able to ascend the coaching ladder quick enough to relocate and land a role as compulsory director at Desert Lights while pursuing a degree at Arizona State. This early stop in her career was a pivotal one, as it introduced McDonald to both the collegiate and superstar sides of the sport.

While it was years before her fame, Olympic silver medalist and Utah legend MyKayla Skinner first started training at Desert Lights while McDonald was leading its compulsory program and dabbling in coaching optionals. Skinner came to the gym as a level eight with potential far beyond that, vaulting rapidly to the elite scene and enabling McDonald to add a new experience to her repertoire.

“It was pretty cool to be a part of her journey to go from that level to, in one year, level 10 and then working into the elite world,” said McDonald. “That was my first taste of coaching somebody working to the elite level and that was pretty special.”

Owner of Desert Lights John Spini was also leading the Sun Devils’ gymnastics program during McDonald’s tenure in Arizona, giving her the opportunity to dip into the wonders of NCAA action through an internship. Though that experience is what sparked her passion to pursue college coaching someday, after graduating, McDonald knew she had more to accomplish on the club side of the sport prior to joining the collegiate ranks.

“I had a lot of knowledge I still wanted to learn and had dreams of having athletes at USA championships and stuff like that,” McDonald said. “So I wanted to pursue that route before college was really on the big radar for me.”

Photo: Emily Howell-Forbes

That first taste of elite with Skinner would be far from McDonald’s last, as her career soon took her to WOGA in Dallas, Texas, the home gym of too many elites and champions to list. Seeking a place to develop herself, she was drawn to the approach the gym takes in developing athletes where they evolve with the same coach throughout their career as opposed to switching with each level as they progress.

“I loved that at WOGA you got the opportunity to grow with your athletes,” McDonald said. “It gave me the opportunity to blossom into a stronger coach.”

And that she did, according to Landi. Both starting at the club in 2012 alongside Landi’s husband Laurent, the two coached different athletes but the same levels before the Landis departed in 2017 to coach the sport’s candidate for greatest of all time at Biles’ gym in Houston. In their five years together, Landi saw McDonald’s confidence grow after once being a newbie among a cast of legends.

“When we started at WOGA, you show up and it’s Valeri Liukin, Natasha [Boyarskaya] and Nataliya [Marakova] who have World and Olympic champions, and you’re like, ‘Oof, what am I doing here?” reminisced Landi. “Janelle felt when we showed up at WOGA it was about how can I make myself as valuable as everybody else here? So little by little you gain confidence and your athletes progress and you find your place. I’ve seen her growth on the technical side but mostly the human and coaching sides.”

Applauded by all those who speak publicly about her, Landi credits McDonald’s positive demeanor and dedication to gymnastics for helping people remember the beauty of the sport that often gets lost in the everyday grind.

“Janelle’s passion and love for the sport radiates throughout her. She exudes qualities that will make an incredible head coach, mentor and leader for this program. I’m so excited to cheer her on as she upholds the UCLA Gymnastics legacy,” said former Bruin and Olympic champion Madison Kocian in a statement to UCLA for McDonald’s hiring. Kocian is one of the many accomplished athletes McDonald worked with in her time in Texas, a list that also includes UCLA legend Katelyn Ohashi and world champion and Florida favorite Alyssa Baumann.

“This is not an exaggeration—Janelle is literally the most passionate and enthusiastic gymnastics coach and gymnastics nerd I have ever met in the 30 years I have been involved in gymnastics,” tweeted Chris Bogantes, who coached with McDonald during a brief stint at Legacy Elite in Chicago.

“And she will come to practice every single day with passion & enthusiasm with a smile on her face… THATS JUST FACTS,” shared Kyana George on Twitter after news of McDonald’s hiring at UCLA. George was an athlete of McDonald’s at California, where she made her NCAA coaching debut as an assistant.

Equipped with an improved technical background and intensified gymnastics knowledge, McDonald felt California was the right fit to make her move to the still untapped collegiate side of coaching when it came calling in 2018. And in no time, McDonald became the most prominent bars coach in the country. She led Maya Bordas to the program’s only national title with her bars win in 2021, coached the bars squad to tying the NCAA record for highest total ever on the event and helped the Golden Bears win a share of their first-ever Pac-12 championship with this year’s regular season title.

But even with all those accolades and resume boosters to talk about, McDonald’s fondest memories from her time in Berkeley revolve around the development of athletes and the relationships she built with them.

“My favorite memory is just the evolution of watching the first group of freshmen I got to work with work through their four-year career there,” explained McDonald. “Watching them grow into stronger, more confident versions of themselves and going from kind of naïve freshmen who don’t really know what’s going on to being ready to take on the next chapter of their life is pretty special to be a part of.”

Growth, the theme of McDonald’s career, is what got her to where she is today, citing the desire of the athletes at UCLA to grow and the opportunity to continue growing herself as factors in taking on this new role. It also gives her a chance to continue on the legacy of one of her greatest influences, Valorie Kondos Field or Miss Val, as they say, who was at the helm of UCLA gymnastics for all seven of its NCAA titles.

“Miss Val is someone that I’ve looked up to since I was quite young because she was someone who wasn’t necessarily the best gymnast. She didn’t compete at a high level, but she coached at a high level,” lauded McDonald. “That is something that has always motivated and inspired me because that’s similar to me. Looking at people like Miss Val, in that regard, has helped inspire me to be a stronger coach.”

Since being hired, McDonald has touched base briefly with Miss Val and intends to work with her moving forward, specifically for guidance on how to continue the program’s tradition of excellence and showcase its rich history. In the short term, McDonald is tasked with reviving a powerhouse program she helped California surpass while distancing the Bruins from their team troubles that made their way into headlines last season. All of that alongside growing into the new, front-facing role she’s been cast in.

“It’s funny because in my interview they asked me [about being prepared for the attention], and I laughed and said, ‘No, I’m not ready for that. How do you prepare for that?’” McDonald said. “But with that said, I know it’s a part of the job and something I’m excited to take on. It actually helps me learn a lot about myself, it helps me learn and grow.”

Photo: Emily Howell-Forbes

One thing helping McDonald make the switch from superstar adjacent to celebrity, in addition to an encouraging call with Landi, is channeling the love for the sport she constantly exudes. Embracing that and the love the sport has for her new program has been paramount to her excitement for what’s to come in this position.

“I love hearing about people being excited about gymnastics and UCLA gymnastics especially,” remarked McDonald. “I love sharing our sport with other people. It’s the most beautiful sport in the world, gymnasts are some of the strongest people in the world, and more people should appreciate and love the sport. I’m excited to be a part of a program that is well loved and well followed.”

McDonald says the athletes are echoing her excitement, which is encouraging after a whirlwind first month on the job from afar while recruiting at level 10 nationals, house hunting and tying up loose ends in the Bay Area. While filling out her staff with “great people who balance my strengths and weaknesses” is certainly a priority, McDonald says building relationships with the athletes will be her biggest emphasis once getting on campus full time.

“The more you learn about someone—their experiences, where they come from, their family, the way they think, their passions, their fears—the more you can identify and celebrate their character and their strengths,” said McDonald. “I think that’s something that’s really important and that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

Having coached gymnastics at nearly every level and inheriting a roster full of Olympians, elites and the nation’s top-ranked recruit en route to Westwood, McDonald will have the opportunity to make a huge impact in her debut season as head coach. With the game plan to focus on things they can control this season—the way they prepare, connect, communicate, their confidence and attitudes—McDonald is ready to embrace where this new experience leads with the same mindset that got her there in the first place.

“Every experience makes you stronger and helps you be prepared to handle whatever gets thrown at you,” McDonald said. “If you can approach every situation with a positive attitude, you’re always going to be able to make an impact with the athletes in front of you and have a great experience in the process.”

READ THIS NEXT: CGN Roundtable: On UCLA, Janelle McDonald and Cal

Article by Brandis Heffner

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